YOUNGSVILLE, La. — Norma Thompson knew she wasn't speeding when she saw the blue emergency lights flashing in her rearview mirror.
But to her surprise, the lights continued to follow behind her as she turned into a dollar store parking lot.
Pedro Alexander II, a traffic sergeant with the Youngsville Police Department, walked up to her car and quickly explained why he had pulled her over.
"You put your signal light on. You were doing the speed limit. So you were doing the right thing," he said. "So because you were doing the right thing, we want to reward you."
Thompson, still stunned, told the officer how much he had scared her and mouthed an expletive.
"And I apologize," Alexander told her with a smile. "But hopefully, it'll end with a better understanding of why. I wanted to give you this gift card."
Alexander handed Thompson a $10 gift certificate to Arlene's Cajun Kitchen.
"Well, my goodness gracious," Thompson said. "Well, that makes my day. I can't believe — maybe it'll calm my nerves down a little bit. You think?"
"We appreciate people who drive safely," he told her. "And hopefully, that is contagious, and other people are going to do the same thing."
Traffic stops like this one have been happening in Youngsville since Thanksgiving and will continue through the end of the month.
It's the fifth year the city's police department has rewarded people with gift cards for obeying traffic laws.
"It promotes a real good interaction between the public and the police department," said Youngsville Police Chief Rickey Boudreaux. "Normally when somebody is getting pulled over, it's not the best of circumstances. This is a way to reward them and give back to the community."
Acadiana businesses donated about 250 gift cards to the Youngsville Police Department this year for the project.
A wide range of businesses participate, from boiled crawfish spots and grocery stores to medispas and auto shops. The gift cards have values between $5 and $25.
"It's free publicity for them, so it wasn't hard to get them to participate the first year," Boudreaux said. "And as businesses heard about it, we got an overwhelming response, and they all wanted to start participating."
Now, five years in, businesses have become so involved in the project that it's almost difficult for officers to hand out all of the gift cards during the holiday season.
There's no mandate for how many an officer has to hand out per shift. They're instructed to look for opportunities.
"We don't constantly give out gift cards all day long," Alexander said. "You kind of wait until that special person catches you, and you're like 'You know what? I think this person deserves to have a surprise in their day.'"
Alexander said he doesn't ask for a driver's license, registration or proof of insurance during these traffic stops. Instead, he tries to explain as quickly as possible the reason for stopping the person.
"I don't want it to be the perception that we're using this gift card giveaway to look for insurance cards or somebody driving around without a driver's license," Alexander said. "Because it's an innocent traffic stop. Potentially anything can go wrong, but we always hope for the best."
Alexander has worked in law enforcement for 23 years. His father worked as a trooper for 30 years, and all four of his siblings work in law enforcement.
Projects like this are important, he said, because they improve the relationship between the police and the community.
"I want people to know that first I'm a husband, secondly, I'm a father, and thirdly, I come out here and leave my family to protect yours," Alexander said. "So a little bit — not much — but a little bit of appreciation goes a long way."
Most people who are pulled over for following the rules of the road are appreciative, even if it takes time for the shock to wear off.
Thompson, who was still shaky a few minutes after Alexander pulled her over, eventually thanked the officer and asked about the restaurant on her gift certificate.
"It's a positive thing," Thompson said. "I think we kind of associate police — when you see the blaring lights — with a negative thing, but this is a good thing. And we can all use more positive, that's for sure."